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America’s smallest airports are hurting, even as more people than ever are flying

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In many respects, 2023 was a record-setting year at airports. The Transportation Security Administration saw its busiest summer ever. All-time, single-day passenger traffic records fell on two occasions. Airlines fielded historic demand for overseas travel, prompting carriers to shift their schedules to meet an enduring craving for travel.

By all accounts, 2024 will be more of the same.

But it remains a very different story at many of America’s smallest airports.

Nearly four years after the pandemic shuttered air travel and helped precipitate a pilot shortage that had been brewing for years, travelers in many rural and midsize communities have far fewer flight options than they did before March 2020.

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Take Williamsport, Pennsylvania, as an example: To get to the nearest major hub, you have to drive three hours to Philadelphia.

Before the pandemic, there was no need for the trek. You could just fly out of Williamsport Regional Airport (IPT).

Sure, you’d have to make a connection at Philadelphia International Airport (PHL), but with that one stop, you could easily be on your way to the West Coast, Europe or elsewhere.

But those days are long gone. Today, no major carrier flies out of IPT … and it’s been that way there — and at far too many other airports across the country — for a few years now.

Dwindling service at smaller airports

After some back-and-forth at the height of the pandemic, American Airlines — then Williamsport’s only major airline — decided in 2020 to drop service at IPT for good, citing pandemic-era head winds.

That left the airport with no commercial service.


“It was a long two years trying to figure out what we could do next,” Richard Howell, IPT’s executive director, acknowledged in a recent interview with TPG.

Howell ran into dead ends as he tried to lure an airline back to the city. A key challenge: Others were trying to do the same.

Since 2020, airlines have exited at least 121 markets nationwide, according to the Regional Airline Association, which advocates for regional carriers — including smaller airlines like SkyWest Airlines, PSA Airlines, Republic Airways and Horizon Air — that feed into larger network carriers and fly between big hubs and smaller communities under names like American Eagle, Delta Connection and United Express.

An American Eagle regional jet operated by PSA Airlines at Philadelphia International Airport (PHL). SEAN CUDAHY/THE POINTS GUY

Pilot shortage

As TPG has reported for two years, regional carriers were hit especially hard by the nationwide pilot shortage. When travel ramped back up after the down days of the pandemic, the big “mainline” airlines went on hiring sprees, replenishing their ranks after offering pilots buyouts and early retirements in 2020.

When they hired, they often hired away from the regional carriers, where many pilots begin their careers.

On top of that siphoning off the regional airlines’ staff, the larger carriers are increasingly using fewer — but larger — planes to transport more passengers. That’s made the landscape even more of an uphill climb for communities like Williamsport, which is capable of filling a small aircraft but likely not a larger one.

“For a small market like ours that’s ideally suited for a 50-seat jet, that was really problematic,” Howell said.

Service cuts have mounted

The results are troubling.

Nationwide, a dozen airports have lost all commercial service in recent years, according to the RAA. Thirty-seven airports have lost at least half. Many more still have service but have seen their number of flights drop significantly.

Through the first six months of 2024, Ithaca Tompkins International Airport (ITH) in New York will see airlines offer 34% fewer seats than that same period in 2019, according to data from aviation analytics firm Cirium. That’s despite the airport’s having undergone a $34.8 million renovation that wrapped up in 2019, which more than doubled the size of the terminal and saw the airport go from one jet bridge to four.


It’s not just ultrarural communities, either.

During the first half of this year, seats from Eugene F. Kranz Toledo Express Airport (TOL) in Ohio are down 51% from 2019. They’re down 64% at Joplin Regional Airport (JLN) in southwest Missouri; down by 31% at Fayetteville Regional Airport (FAY) in North Carolina, near Fort Liberty (formerly Fort Bragg); and down by 36% at Dayton International Airport (DAY) in Ohio, which is near Wright-Patterson Air Force Base — not to mention the former home of the Wright brothers.

“Dozens of airports continue to have less than half the flights they had before the pandemic. And a quarter of the country is still missing, on average, 1 in 4 flights,” RAA CEO Faye Malarkey Black told TPG, noting that some 400 regional jets nationwide are parked. The ones that aren’t parked are underused.

Examples of airports that have lost significant service

Airport % of departing seats lost (first 6 months of 2024 vs. 2019)
Del Rio International Airport (DRT), Texas -100%
Easterwood Airport (CLL); College Station, Texas -34%
Evansville Regional Airport (EVV), Indiana -27%
La Crosse Regional Airport (LSE), Wisconsin -57%
Lansing Airport (LAN), Michigan – 30%
Lincoln Airport (LNK), Nebraska -33%
Manchester-Boston Regional Airport (MHT), New Hampshire -31%
Meridian Regional Airport (MEI), Mississippi -45%
Sioux Gateway Airport (SUX); Sioux City, Iowa -43%
Central Wisconsin Airport (CWA); Wausau, Wisconsin -30%

Data sourced from Cirium Diio 

A challenge for travelers and communities

It takes a toll.

Williamsport, widely known as the host city for the Little League World Series each summer, is also the headquarters for numerous businesses.

The Little League World Series Complex in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. JOSHUA BESSEX/GETTY IMAGES

As time has passed, Howell has started to hear concerns from local leaders.

“Rumblings that we’re starting to have potential issues with recruitment to bring new businesses into the area,” he said.

It’s not just Williamsport.

That frustration is apparent in Dubuque, Iowa, too, where American Airlines offered 2,100 flights in 2019, per Cirium — an average of five daily departures.

But just weeks after the airport flooded with fans headed to another iconic baseball spectacle in 2022 — professional games at the “Field of Dreams” site near Dyersville, Iowa — Dubuque Regional Airport (DBQ) saw its only commercial service come to an end.


The airport has since welcomed upstart budget carrier Avelo Airlines, but it’s not the same. The airline flies twice weekly to Orlando, though it just paused its service until November as part of a seasonal cycle.

Clearly, there’s still a void, said Todd Dalsing, the airport’s director.

“We’re hoping we can eventually pick up — even if it’s not seven days a week — maybe it’s Monday to Friday, starting with one flight a day,” Dalsing said. “To get us back into the system, and be able to show the support of our community.”

US states with highest rate of air service lost

Rank State % of departures lost (January 2020 vs. January 2024)
1. Vermont – 33%
2. New Hampshire -29%
3. Iowa -28%
4. Michigan -28%
5. Pennsylvania -27%
6. Maine -26%
7. Wisconsin -24%
8. Oregon -24%
9. North Dakota -23%
10. Ohio -23%

Data sourced from the Regional Airline Association

Reasons for optimism? Maybe

There are at least some reasons to be optimistic.

Down the road from Williamsport, Wilkes-Barre Scranton International Airport (AVP), another hard-hit airport, will see its seats increase by 20% versus last year, per Cirium, thanks in large part to the arrival of another startup low-cost carrier, Breeze Airways — though seats from the airport will still be roughly a third short of 2019 levels.

In January, Williamsport itself secured flights to Dulles International Airport (IAD) near Washington, D.C., aboard commuter carrier Southern Airways Express. The twice-daily service begins next month. Still, it’s an imperfect replacement for the seamless connections American Airlines once offered via its Philadelphia hub.


Avelo, in particular, has brought new life to other airports that didn’t have commercial service previously, such as in Wilmington, Delaware; New Haven, Connecticut; and Lakeland, Florida.

Regional service a stronger focus?

The larger airlines have also signaled interest in restoring service to smaller communities.

At an industry conference last fall, American Airlines CEO Robert Isom noted that the carrier’s growth plans in 2024 largely centered on getting regional aircraft back into the air.

“As I take a look out into 2024, there’s good news for a lot of regional communities that saw massive reductions in terms of capacity,” Isom said during a panel moderated by aviation journalist and current TPG contributor Edward Russell.

“It’s Roanoke [in Virginia] and Lubbock [in Texas] and a lot of small cities — [Michigan’s] Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids,” Isom said. “It’s going to be a lot of small cities throughout the United States.”

Delta Air Lines executives have likewise noted the carrier’s hope to bring regional jets back into the mix as part of a larger effort to rebuild capacity across parts of its network that haven’t fully recovered since the start of the pandemic.

“The final stage of our core hub restoration will be the full return of regional flying,” Delta President Glen Hauenstein said on the company’s most recent earnings call April 10. “We still have probably at least 50 regionals either not flying, or underutilized — probably almost 100 when you include the underutilization.”

A Delta Connection Embraer 175 operated by Republic Airways. NICOLAS ECONOMOU/NUR PHOTO/GETTY IMAGES

Yet, Black of the RAA believes any signs of progress are modest at best, with the number of pilots in the pipeline still not sufficient to fully overcome the service cuts of recent years — and a wave of pilot retirements expected later in the 2020s.

“We are not seeing communities fall off the map in vast numbers like we did in 2022 and 2023. But we aren’t seeing recovery at any scale,” Black said. “Air service remains in crisis.”

Small, local airports still popular

That’s not to say Americans have lost interest in small airports.

A majority of Dubuque citizens would support air service if it came back, Dalsing said, citing preliminary survey data from the local chamber of commerce.

After all, the same factors that made these airports convenient before the pandemic still exist today.

“Being 10 minutes from your home … short wait times, very short TSA line, friendly, accommodating staff … that definitely played a role,” Dalsing said.

Free parking doesn’t hurt, either, in Dubuque’s case.

More plainly, there’s obvious appeal in departing from an airport just down the street.

But across the country, it’s an option far fewer travelers have today than they did five years ago — and it’s not clear when that might change. 

“It’s an economic impact to your community. It’s your connection to, not only the nation, but the world,” Dalsing said. “And, obviously, we don’t want rural America to be left behind.”